Saturday, October 25, 2014

Unconventional Wisdom

I read Profiles in Courage in high school.  I wouldn't be surprised if Barack Obama read it in high school as well.  I wonder if he remembers, as I do, the signature quote of the chapter on Thomas Hart Benton: "I despise the bubble popularity."

As the 2014 elections approach, Democrats are supposedly in trouble because the Obama bubble has supposedly burst.  An unpopular President, the media drones, a failed presidency.  Reporters are quick to detect any secret sign that a candidate is "running away" from the President.  As somebody smarter than that has pointed out, Democrats who run away from the President are fools.  First, they are Democrats and they are going to be identified with a Democratic President anyway.  And second, they'll alienate the very Democrats who gave Barack Obama two big majorities.

But there are contrarians out there who beg to differ with the premise.  One of them is Paul Krugman writing in Rolling Stone.  First of all, he takes issue with the idea that Obama is all that unpopular:

"Yes, Obama has a low approval rating compared with earlier presidents. But there are a number of reasons to believe that presidential approval doesn't mean the same thing that it used to: There is much more party-sorting (in which Republicans never, ever have a good word for a Democratic president, and vice versa), the public is negative on politicians in general, and so on. Obviously the midterm election hasn't happened yet, but in a year when Republicans have a huge structural advantage – Democrats are defending a disproportionate number of Senate seats in deep-red states – most analyses suggest that control of the Senate is in doubt, with Democrats doing considerably better than they were supposed to. This isn't what you'd expect to see if a failing president were dragging his party down."

So much for the bubble popularity.  He continues:

"More important, however, polls – or even elections – are not the measure of a president. High office shouldn't be about putting points on the electoral scoreboard, it should be about changing the country for the better. Has Obama done that? Do his achievements look likely to endure? The answer to both questions is yes."

 Krugman wasn't an Obama enthusiast and has criticized some of his actions as President.  But after 6 years he's taken the long view:

"Despite bitter opposition, despite having come close to self-inflicted disaster, Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history. His health reform is imperfect but still a huge step forward – and it's working better than anyone expected. Financial reform fell far short of what should have happened, but it's much more effective than you'd think. Economic management has been half-crippled by Republican obstruction, but has nonetheless been much better than in other advanced countries. And environmental policy is starting to look like it could be a major legacy."

Read the piece.  It may cheer you or change your mind.  There's a companion list for the text averse:55 figures that prove President Obama has accomplished more than you may realize.
President Obama hugs a nurse who survived Ebola

And there's a different article that takes an overview of Obama's accomplishments in rolling back the rabid right Republican takeover of the judiciary.  This one may surprise you even more--it's by one of the best in the business, Jeffrey Toobin in the New Yorker, and it includes an interview with the President.

Meanwhile, major Republican candidates are trying hard to hide how extreme they actually are.  And failing.  Look no farther than Colorado.  And the polls say she is ahead.  I don't pretend to understand what's going on in voters heads in these states.  But Democrats need to get their brains out of the bubble and their heads back up where they belong, and get to the polls.  We've got a President.  Don't let him down.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

R.I.P. The Editor: Ben Bradlee

For a short time in the post-Watergate '70s, Ben Bradlee and I had something in common: we were both editors of a Washington newspaper.  Of course, fledgling alternative weekly Washington Newsworks was not exactly the giant, swaggering Washington Post.  We were the "Washington Outsiders" (as our promo said--I wrote it) in direct contrast to the insiders at the Post.  Though there was also another daily in town (the solid, well-edited Washington Star) the Post was the measure of all journalism in Washington.  They were all over the glamorous federal Washington, but their Metro section was weak.  So we looked for our stories there, as well as in the youth culture that the Post saw chiefly with bemusement.

Though I never met Bradlee, he was already an icon.  I'd been in Boston when the Pentagon Papers and Watergate were happening--my own stories on the 1972 Nixon campaign cited the Post's reporting before it permeated the political consciousness.

  Then as Newsworks editor, Bradlee's boldness was an unadmitted model.  My first news decision was reviving a story that had been held back because it might offend an advertiser.  Bradlee wouldn't be intimidated! I worked with the writer to make sure the story was solid, and we gave the advertisers a heads-up on its publication (They shrugged--they knew newspapers reported stories when they bought the ads.)

  Later I went after a national story which involved facing down some very important people, channeling Bradlee without realizing it.  My proudest moment now was how Newsworks covered the assassination of Chilean activist Orlando Letelier in a car bombing by Pinochet's secret police on the streets of Washington that also killed American Ronni Karpen Moffitt.  Jeff Stein did all the reporting (he's now a columnist at the Washington Post) all on his own, so except for a little text editing my role was as Newswork's Bradlee.  I put the story on the cover and gave it major play inside.  I worked with Jeff, with the art and production department.  The result was the best and most thorough coverage in the city.  Better than yours, Ben.  I'll bet you noticed.

Those who knew him are marking his death with their remembrances.  (For good example, David Remnick at the New Yorker.)  For everybody else, there's an apparently dead-on portrayal of Bradlee by Jason Robards in the classic film of All the President's Men.  For me, there was and is the example of a editor with courage and panache who stood for--and stood up for--a kind of journalism I believed in, and tried to do.  Sure, he had lots of faults and some lapses.  So did and do I.  But as a model, he was it.  May he rest in peace, but his restless spirit ever pervade American journalism.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Ebola Facts Not Fear 2

More Ebola facts, up to date (after many in quarantine are getting out, disease-free.)  Why some are so fearful (the perfect storm of fears: infectious disease, immigration and terrorism, exploited by politicians currently running.)  And why Ebola makes no sense as a terrorist weapon.  All of those are from Slate.

From Bloomberg, a little more psychological about why people are fearful.  And Jonathan Bernstein on why President Obama's choice for the Ebola "Czar" makes sense.

And an ongoing project but already wide perspective on all of this, check out the maybe too obvious wikipedia page.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Ebola Facts Not Fear

President Obama in his weekly Saturday address (about four minutes) on the facts about Ebola in America and Africa, about the relative risks, the difficulty of contracting it (it's not airborne; contact with bodily fluids is necessary) and perspective: thousands of Americans die every year from the infectious disease called flu.  So far two nurses who treated a man who contracted the disease in Africa are the only Americans who have contracted it here, and they are being treated.  "If we are guided by the science, the facts, not fear, then I'm absolutely confident we can prevent a serious outbreak" in the US, and the US will continue to lead the world in fighting the disease in Africa.

Ebola Hysteria in the Age of Distraction

photos in this post from New Yorker
I no longer have direct contact with cable news but I am aware of the dangers of infection.  The current hysteria over Ebola is being intentionally whipped up by Republicans for political gain but mostly by a couple of cable news networks for profit and politics (Fox) and profit, or at least fewer losses, by CNN.

Clearly many of our institutions as well as the public were not ready.  WHO, C.D.C., various African governments, individual hospitals in the US, etc. didn't have effective plans to deal with this particular infectious disease, and possibly any such outbreak.  There's blame to go around, including to Republicans in Congress who cut the CDC budget, reflecting in part a general complacency in the US regarding infectious disease epidemics.  It just hasn't happened in so long that to some it didn't seem likely or a priority or maybe even possible.

But we've also known for years that as hotter temperatures move north and into higher elevations, plus other effects of the climate crisis, that infectious diseases are likely to be a problem in places unaccustomed to them.  And the likelihood of mutations would increase, which coupled with the fast daily movement of people and products (including food and plants, and the insects and rodents that hitch rides) had the potential to spread infections faster and farther than at any other time in human history.  Stephen King for one has been making a living for decades writing vividly about this.

But there are other new wrinkles in the contemporary world that spread the viruses of hysteria even faster and farther.  Local gossip, hometown zealots and fulminators who see panic as an opportunity for fame, power and profit were always very good at whipping up hysteria without regard to factual information, but within limited areas and over time.

Newspapers at their height of influence saw profit as well as power for ownership in creating hysteria that led to wars, so feeding fears that sell papers even on public health issues was hardly out of bounds.  But the world is tighter and smaller now, not only with instant access to the electronically transmitted hysteria of radio and television voices with their own agendas, their own irresponsibility and direct impulses from troubled psyches to big mouths, but with the open to everybody channels of the Internet--all the comments, tweets, texts, etc.  Getting noticed, feeling part of a group, and a hundred other motivations all too easily trump responsible speech.

The rabid right is not the only infected group.  Political coverage in the age of distraction has become more frenzied, with a higher priority on speed and brevity than thought and accuracy.

Satirists are our trenchant guides to this.  I've already cited Andy Borowitz once: Man Infected with Ebola Misinformation Through Casual Contact With Cable News.  He followed up with CNN Defends New Slogan: "The president of CNN Worldwide, Jeff Zucker, attempted on Wednesday to defuse the brewing controversy over his decision to change the network’s official slogan from “The Most Trusted Name in News” to “Holy Crap, We’re All Gonna Die.”

Most recently he posted: Some Fear Ebola Outbreak Could Make Nation Turn to Science: "In interviews conducted across the nation, leading anti-science activists expressed their concern that the American people, wracked with anxiety over the possible spread of the virus, might desperately look to science to save the day.
“It’s a very human reaction,” said Harland Dorrinson, a prominent anti-science activist from Springfield, Missouri. “If you put them under enough stress, perfectly rational people will panic and start believing in science.”

The irony is more comforting than the current reality however.  We're still knee-deep in hysteria that's way out of proportion to the actual danger, at least here in North America.  One of its many products is hysterical cries for what seem like easy solutions, but are far more complex and perhaps even counterproductive (closing airports may be one.)

Though there are always other factors involved (Arthur Miller's play on the witch hysteria in Salem comes to mind as revealing some), hysteria and panic often depend on ignorance.  Yet we have a supposedly educated country, free from the kind of superstition that fed witch hunts etc. until a couple of centuries ago.  Even with the discomfiting revival in belief in the supernatural, or the ease with which fundamentalist creeds can be turned to hysteria, it seems somewhat counter-intuitive that such hysteria exists here and now.

But consider the speed of information, and how much time the average human appendage to a smart phone spends on dealing with the volume and speed of what is usually pretty mundane data,  relieved by "viral" excitements instantly shared by millions.  It is a culture of perpetual distraction, and it requires instant easy answers to any disturbances in the field.  A complex and deadly reality like infectious disease quickly become overwhelming.

 Used to--and let's be real, addicted to-- speedy and ephemeral bits and stimulations, can we slow down to deliberate and concentrate?  Or is it just easier to lash out hysterically in every direction?  Even when doing so, we become prey to much more than a disease that so far is much less threatening to Americans than a car crash or lightning strike--or maybe more to the point, than the growing threats of floods, tornadoes, hurricanes or other slower effects of global heating, none of which we are dealing with adequately.

Hysteria is the other end of the same continuum anchored by complacency and denial.  The world has been slow to respond effectively to Ebola in Africa, where it really is a dangerous epidemic.  I happen to know someone on the front lines fighting Ebola in Africa.  She is a courageous young woman working with Doctors Without Borders.  We here who know her are very proud of her.  Supporting such efforts makes much more sense than feeding the beast of panic--for its rampages right now are more potentially dangerous than the disease itself.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


   Postmodernism?  Modernism?  Abstract Expressionism?  Hmm.  Or "a photo of microtubules and clathrin magnified 1,500 times, taken with super-resolution microscopy techniques."  Another example of what this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry winners made possible.

Guns Over Freedom

Instead of leading to sane laws, the assassination attempt on Representative Gabriel Giffords that left her near death and significantly incapacitated for life (let alone the swift murder of schoolchildren) seemed to have juiced the rabid insistence on legalizing lethal weapons and allowing anyone with a pulse, no matter how crazy or careless or clueless or intent on murder and mayhem, into even the most volatile public spaces, with all the kill power they can carry.

The current misinterpretation of the the Second Amendment is currently trumping the exercise of the First Amendment.  Anita Sarkeesian, scheduled to speak at Utah State University, received a vivid death threat--not only to herself, but to her audience.  An email told her that if she spoke it would result in "the deadliest school shooting in American history."  Note that this is an explicit threat of gun violence.

But Sarkeesian was informed by school officials that under Utah state law, they could not prevent anyone from showing up at her speech armed, as long as they had a concealed weapons permit.  The school "confirmed the latest threat and said it involved danger to Sarkeesian and anyone who would have attended her speech."  She cancelled the speech, presumably much to the relief of the school.

Think about what this means.  This is the "ballots not bullets" country where the right to free speech and to peaceably assemble are considered sacred foundations to the entire American enterprise.  They are enshrined in the First Amendment, and there's a reason it is first.  Without its guarantees, the others don't matter much.  It might even be said that the rights in the following amendments are there to support the rights in the First.

But lethal weapons can't be kept out of a public assembly.  Notice that you've read this far and you don't have to be told generally speaking what political position Sarkeesian might hold.  You know she's not speaking on behalf of the Tea Party.
She is a feminist who apparently has negative things to say about the content of various video games.  So now we're talking about a Culture War, and a political debate, in which one side shows up with guns.  Theoretically both sides could.  But you know that's not going to happen.  At least not yet.  And what if it does?
Still for now this is how the rabid right wins a debate (even if it's a rabid teenage right.)

So what's next?  Guns at the polls in a couple of weeks?  Is that legal in Utah?  In other states?

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Dreaming Up Daily Weekly Quote

“In love’s service only wounded soldiers can serve.”
Thornton Wilder

illustration: No, it's not a coastline. It's a microscopic image of actin filaments, tiny proteins involved in functions such as movement and signaling, imagery made possible through principles discovered by this year's Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry.  Photo: Xiaowei Zhuang, Harvard U.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Climate Crisis: Cause and Effect

There are two parts of the climate crisis: the causes and the effects.  The causes are the factors that create global heating, mostly greenhouse gases pollution.

Global heating has effects, generally called climate change, but more specifically its effects that injure and kill people: sea level rise and consequent permanent changes to the landscape, drought and fires, storms and floods, higher temperatures and longer and more severe heat waves, and in turn their effects, which include disease, hunger and war.

A New York Times story tried to find the best places in America to weather the climate crisis for the next century.  It's not a pretty picture. "Forget most of California and the Southwest (drought, wildfires). Ditto for much of the East Coast and Southeast (heat waves, hurricanes, rising sea levels). Washington, D.C., for example, may well be a flood zone by 2100..."  And as someone in the story notes, all these projections are merely for the next century.  The effects will continue beyond that, perhaps getting worse, especially if this generation does not deal with the causes.

The Los Angeles Times was among the news organizations to cover a study last week: "Fewer than half of American states are working to protect themselves from climate change, despite more detailed warnings from scientists that communities are already being damaged, according to a new online clearinghouse of states’ efforts compiled by the Georgetown Climate Center."

In a story made timely by the Ebola epidemic and the cases in the US but with application to climate crisis effects,  a Scientific American writer analyzed the data and found that instead of gearing up for public health emergencies,  funding for public health preparedness by the Center for Disease Control has actually been cut to the tune of a billion dollars between 2002 and 2013.

Much is being done as a byproduct of something else, or when local leadership prevails or finesses the work on effects without mentioning the "controversial" cause.  But sooner and perhaps not too late, we'll need to be clear on what needs to be done and why, on both the causes and the effects.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Blue Light Special and The Week in Good News

The Supreme Court (yes, that Supreme Court) struck down voter ID laws in Wisconsin and Texas, effective immediately.  As this story notes and others go into more elaborately, the Texas decision that the Supremes upheld is the more sweeping, indicating that the Texas law was a form of poll tax, deliberately restricting minority voters rights.

Nobel Peace Prize supports children's rights,  Physics prize for blue light, a key to earth-saving technology in the climate crisis.

This is actually a month old but it's still good news: thanks to the success of regulated limits, nearly two dozen previously threatened and endangered fish species off the California coast have bounced back to sustainable populations.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Everywhere We Were

Cave art in Indonesia has just been dated at about 40,000 years old, approximately the same age as the oldest art previously known, in caves in Spain and France.  The stenciled hands are most visible here, but there are also detailed renderings of animals, as in the ancient images in present-day Europe.  It seems pre-history is not fixed, any more than history or the future.  Such discoveries (or conclusions) seem to alter received knowledge about our humanoid origins continually.  Recently it was asserted for the first time that Neanderthals may well have fashioned tools and created art.  And that we carry their genes within us.  

The Daily Outrage:That's Rich

Outrage is the Internet's middle name.  Nevertheless:

Who cut back on their charitable giving after the Great Recession?  The 1% of course.  The uberrich are also getting worse at "job creation" via this article in the Guardian.

Champions of the evil rich, the fabulous Koch Brothers are finally getting exposed, if nothing else.  A Bridge Project report details their awful and negatively aggressive and ugly mistreatment of everybody who isn't rich, as parsed by Alternet.  This follows an absorbing narrative of Inside the Koch's Toxic Empire in Rolling Stone last month.

Also in the Guardian, Karuna Jaggar persuasively exposes NFL hypocrisy (again), this time in its Buy Pink breast cancer extravaganzas.  It's getting harder to argue that the NFL is about anything but mucho money mostly for those who already have it.  

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Seinfeld Election and Other Absurdities

According to the Wall Street Journal, the upcoming November voting is shaping up to be "an election about nothing."

"No single issue dominates, except unhappiness with the established order," they say.

 So here's where we are: The Republicans can't credibly talk about  unemployment because it is down (5.9%) below even what Romney claimed his policies would result in.  The Republicans can't credibly criticize the federal deficit because it is down, even below what the Congressional Budget Office predicted.  The Republicans can't credibly criticize Obamacare, because it is clearly meeting its goals.

Yes, I used "Republicans" and the concept of credibility in three consecutive sentences.  What's wrong with me?

The Republicans are said to be ahead.

In other news:

From the Borowitz Report: Man Infected with Ebola Misinformation Through Casual Contact With Cable News

From TPM Annoying Ads Central:

Man open carrying his new gun has his gun stolen at gun point.

T. Goddard's Not Quite As Annoying Ads Central But Getting There Quote of the Day:
"I don't need a semi-automatic rifle to shoot a duck. Maybe you do. Maybe you should spend more time on your shooting range."

-- Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN), quoted by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, to challenger Stewart Mills (R) in a debate.

The Big (Dry) North Coast Story

photo: Norcal Fishing News
At least according to the Eureka Times-Standard, the continuing Big Story on the North Coast is water.  Last month (when we actually got an unusual day or so of steady rain, which pushed us above the average for a usually dry month) there were a steady stream of headlines about rain: No Rain Expected, Rain To End, It May Never Rain Again, etc.  This followed weeks of headlines about El Nino, which everyone has stopped talking about. (The latest: it will be weak, if it happens at all this winter. So no help for the West Coast.)

Last week marked the end of the official 2014 "water year," according to the California Department of Water Resources, keeper of the stats.  The water year goes from September to September. The state got less than 60% of the averaged precip., making it a very dry year.  Melissa Simon in the Times-Standard (Oct. 2) quotes a local National Weather Service meteorologist to the effect that Humboldt County got between 30% and 60%, making it the fifth driest on record.  Which is actually of some comfort, in the climate crisis era of annual record-breaking.

Winter is our rainy season, and we've had three comparatively dry ones in a row.  Where it shows is in the levels of rivers and streams, which affects fish (especially salmon) as well as drinking water supplies in more isolated and small places.  Streams and rivers are additionally depleted by pot growers increasingly tapping into them directly for their prodigious water use.

But very locally, the solid month of rain we got last winter filled the reservoir, so we are good for home water for another year or two, especially if people conserve some.

The story in the next column of the paper was about a federal court ruling that a special release of reservoir water to help salmon in the Klamath River was legal, although the judge wasn't promising this would extend to another such release without a better legal basis.  The water would have gone to farmers well south of here.  So with the large scale agriculture elsewhere, our smaller crops and dairy farms here but also the marijuana industry mostly to our immediate south, and the rivers and fisheries, especially in tribal areas to our north, water is going to continue to be The Big Story for awhile, maybe a long while.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Gabby's Progress (And Ours)

Gabby Giffords with husband and former astronaut Mark Kelly, 2014
In connection with the previous subject of presidential safety, it's important to recall that an assassination attempt was made on a member of the U.S. Congress in January of 2011, not even four years ago.  Gabriel Giffords was shot in the head at close range by a gunman and barely survived.

Here's a story from last week on Gabby's progress, both physically and as the focal point of an organization that intends to be big enough to go toe to toe with the National Rifle Association on issues of guns in America.  In both cases, progress is slow and limited, but enough to be encouraging and not futile.

This is what one powerful gun did in a flash: it reduced an active, promising young leader to years of therapy so that she can say a few words in public.  This is what guns do--in a moment of emotion or delusion or accident, they change everything.
Member of Congress Gabriel Giffords 2010

And yet while we regulate aspirin bottle caps, our country insists on making ever more lethal weapons available ever more cheaply to ever more people, and present in increasing numbers of circumstances: on the street, in backyards, in bars and restaurants, in churches, in schools, in political debates.
On Youtube I saw an old interview with some celebrity, I don't remember who, in which he commented that the Sandy Hook school shooting was so horrendous, that if it didn't lead Americans to demand effective gun control, there really was no hope for this society.  That was 2012.  The situation has only gotten worse.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Protecting the President

When somebody ran across the lawn and into the White House, it was the occasion for some pointed humor from the New Yorker's Andy Borowitz.   Obama to Move to Doorman Building skewered one aspect of this story.  Citing Security Concerns, Iraq's Prime Minister Cancels Visit to White House suggested another.

Then came further news that the intruder got pretty far into the White House, carrying a knife, with his guns left behind in his car.  And it wasn't funny anymore. The head of the Secret Service got grilled in a congressional hearing, and subsequently resigned.

Jelani Cobb (also in the New Yorker) spoke directly to the assassination fears that both preceded and followed this president's election.  He reminds us that there were black voters who didn't vote for Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries as a favor to Michelle and their daughters.  He reminds us of the startling interview Mrs. Obama in which she responded to the fears that as a black man running for President, he was in danger:

Michelle replied that the dangers of the Presidency were not novel. “I don’t lose sleep about it,” she said. “Because the realities are, as a black man, you know, Barack can get shot going to the gas station”—certainly the first time that this particular demographic truth has been enlisted as a reason to be optimistic about a black man’s prospects."

That's a devastating quote now, after (to take just one example) a black man was shot and killed in the aisles of a Wal-Mart.  But for the President, those fears have diminished, mostly because of Barack Obama's own demeanor, Cobb writes: "In 2008, Obama projected calm amid political turbulence. As President, this demeanor has been part of the reason that such fears have receded to the extent that they have. Yet a population that lived through the September 11th attacks can scarcely ever confuse remote likelihoods with complete impossibilities."

Now what seems to be a shocking White House vulnerability has been exposed, and it has been making news for days.  Terrorists around the world have certainly taken notice.  But it's even more dangerous than that.

 In this regard I think of beheading.  Until a month or so ago, beheading was so unthinkable that it was a joke about times long past.  But it isn't a joke anymore.  I was startled to see it referenced that way in a cartoon about it (once again, in the New Yorker) just from September.  More recently however, something that suggested beheading had to be cut out from a Doctor Who episode at the last minute.

But those weren't the only effects.  Suddenly there were news reports in the US of ordinary people beheading other ordinary people.  I recall seeing two, possibly there were more.  Maybe that doesn't qualify for going viral, but at the least it ceased to be unthinkable.

I seem to recall that this successful intruder followed a day or two after somebody else scaled the White House fence but was stopped on the lawn.  It's become thinkable.  The aura of invulnerability is gone.

It's also a reminder that those most virulently opposed to President Obama's very existence as President are likely to be among the most heavily armed private citizens in America.

It's likely that the White House is better prepared for an armed assault or terrorist attack than a lone man running amuck (but of course, the "lone man" has proven to be the deadliest danger in the past.) But we don't really know now, do we?

 It's certainly better that such a security breakdown was exposed without real damage.  It's good that Congress got upset about it, because Congress is as responsible as anyone else for it, as their stupid sequester cuts have left the Secret Service hundreds of agents short.  Now the guy who used to lead the detail that specifically protected President Obama has come out of retirement to take charge.  He's got some work to do, and fast.

Though some people profited, this country never got over the assassination of President Kennedy.  African Americans in particular have never gotten over the assassination of Martin Luther King.  It doesn't take much imagination to understand the stakes.  

Update: I don't much trust the Politico site, but I do trust the writer Marc Ambinder, and his piece on the Secret Service is revealing, and troubling.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The Environment Is The Economy

The numbers assigned to the climate march in New York have grown.  Bill McKibben in the New Yorker notes: "The Times, quoting a Carnegie Mellon data analyst and thirty-five crowd spotters, estimated that the marchers numbered three hundred and eleven thousand; Fox News said four hundred thousand. The point is, it was huge: a sprawling crowd of the kind that comes along once in a generation, one of the largest political gatherings about anything in a very long time."

Responding to someone who saw this as proof that people really do care about the climate crisis, McKibben writes that he believes they care but: "I’ve always thought that, to the contrary, climate change caused a peculiar combination of deep dread and a sense of powerlessness."

Individuals think they can't do much and they're right, McKibben says." warming is fundamentally a structural problem, driven above all by the fact that there’s no price on carbon."  Others emphasize different bigger than driving a Prius changes; Charles C. Mann in the Atlantic suggests that shutting down the 7,000 or so coal-fueled power plants in the world would pretty much do the trick.  But Mann agrees with McKibben in this respect: climate needs a movement. McK:

"That is one of the reasons numbers matter: they build on themselves, speaking to the part in each of us that doubts change can really happen. But numbers also say something to the larger world; they are the basic currency a movement relies on. The fossil-fuel industry represents the one per cent of the one per cent; lacking scientific arguments, its advocates use their only asset, an unparalleled pool of cash, to maintain the status quo. If the rest of us are going to shake up the planetary gestalt, our equivalent currency is bodies—and the passion, spirit, and creativity they contain.

To borrow a metaphor from the fossil-fuel age, our job is to inject pressure into the system. Marches aren’t subtle; they don’t lay out detailed manifestos (and, in any event, economists have been telling us for a quarter century what we need to do—beginning, again, with putting a price on carbon). Movements work by making the status quo impossibly uncomfortable—by deploying people, arguments, metaphors, and images until our leaders have no choice but to change and, in so doing, release some of that pressure."

In the meantime, the evidence keeps coming in.  NOAA affirms that 2013 heat waves were made worse by global heating.  A Stanford scientist says the California drought this time is linked to the climate crisis.

To emphasize this is not the only problem--or more to the point--it is not merely a technical problem--there's the World Wildlife Fund finding that human civilization has killed off half the "non-human vertebrae animal population" on the planet since 1970.  Actually the years were 1970 to 2010: 40 years.

The reasons had to do with habitat destruction, exploitation and pollution.  Global heating makes it all worse, when combined with human population, industrialization and urban sprawl. This is more than be nice to our fellow creatures, as this Washington Post Wonkblog piece explains. We're using more "resources" than can be replaced or healed, and therefore sustained.  The environment is the economy.  Until we all figure that out, we're arguing over nothing.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Addressing the Future

President Obama made two (or at least two) significant speeches last week, both to the United Nations.

On September 23, he spoke  about the climate crisis to the UN Climate Summit.  (Here's the video.  Here's the transcript.)

He began: "For all the immediate challenges that we gather to address this week -- terrorism, instability, inequality, disease-- there’s one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other, and that is the urgent and growing threat of a changing climate."

"So the climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it. The alarm bells keep ringing. Our citizens keep marching. We cannot pretend we do not hear them. We have to answer the call. We know what we have to do to avoid irreparable harm. We have to cut carbon pollution in our own countries to prevent the worst effects of climate change. We have to adapt to the impacts that, unfortunately, we can no longer avoid. And we have to work together as a global community to tackle this global threat before it is too late.

We cannot condemn our children, and their children, to a future that is beyond their capacity to repair. Not when we have the means -- the technological innovation and the scientific imagination -- to begin the work of repairing it right now.

As one of America’s governors has said, “We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.”

After describing US efforts and successes in his administration, he challenged his audience: And today, I call on all countries to join us -– not next year, or the year after, but right now, because no nation can meet this global threat alone.

"Yes, this is hard. But there should be no question that the United States of America is stepping up to the plate. We recognize our role in creating this problem; we embrace our responsibility to combat it. We will do our part, and we will help developing nations do theirs. But we can only succeed in combating climate change if we are joined in this effort by every nation –- developed and developing alike. Nobody gets a pass."

"For I believe, in the words of Dr. King, that there is such a thing as being too late. And for the sake of future generations, our generation must move toward a global compact to confront a changing climate while we still can."

He ended his speech, which contained many specifics, by returning to the necessary perspective:

"This challenge demands our ambition. Our children deserve such ambition. And if we act now, if we can look beyond the swarm of current events and some of the economic challenges and political challenges involved, if we place the air that our children will breathe and the food that they will eat and the hopes and dreams of all posterity above our own short-term interests, we may not be too late for them.

While you and I may not live to see all the fruits of our labor, we can act to see that the century ahead is marked not by conflict, but by cooperation; not by human suffering, but by human progress; and that the world we leave to our children, and our children’s children, will be cleaner and healthier, and more prosperous and secure."

On September 25, President Obama addressed the General Assembly with a vision of the world and its future.  (Here's a summary with the video at the bottom.  Here's the transcript.)  This speech was widely praised (for example by Thomas Wright at the Brookings Institute who calls it a major turning point, and conservative NY Times columnist David Brooks, who calls it "one of the finest speeches of his presidency.")

After listing the positive change in the postwar era, President Obama called to account "the failure of our international system to keep pace with an interconnected world. We, collectively, have not invested adequately in the public health capacity of developing countries. Too often, we have failed to enforce international norms when it’s inconvenient to do so. And we have not confronted forcefully enough the intolerance, sectarianism, and hopelessness that feeds violent extremism in too many parts of the globe.

"Fellow delegates, we come together as united nations with a choice to make. We can renew the international system that has enabled so much progress, or we can allow ourselves to be pulled back by an undertow of instability. We can reaffirm our collective responsibility to confront global problems, or be swamped by more and more outbreaks of instability. And for America, the choice is clear: We choose hope over fear. We see the future not as something out of our control, but as something we can shape for the better through concerted and collective effort. We reject fatalism or cynicism when it comes to human affairs. We choose to work for the world as it should be, as our children deserve it to be."

He spoke of the specific challenges of the Ukraine, ISIL and Ebola, about Iran and spread of nuclear weapons, about eradicating poverty, returning to the climate crisis before returning in detail to terrorism.

"In other words, on issue after issue, we cannot rely on a rule book written for a different century. If we lift our eyes beyond our borders -- if we think globally and if we act cooperatively -- we can shape the course of this century, as our predecessors shaped the post-World War II age."

He spoke of the threat of violent terrorism, acknowledged the breeding grounds of poverty, economic travail and hopelessness but repeated his comdemnation of ISIL and its savagery: "No God condones this terror. No grievance justifies these actions. There can be no reasoning -- no negotiation -- with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death." 

He spoke not only of military force but of exposing, confronting and refuting hate-filled propaganda using the Internet as they do, and other efforts.

"It is one of the tasks of all great religions to accommodate devout faith with a modern, multicultural world. No children are born hating, and no children -- anywhere -- should be educated to hate other people. There should be no more tolerance of so-called clerics who call upon people to harm innocents because they’re Jewish, or because they're Christian, or because they're Muslim. It is time for a new compact among the civilized peoples of this world to eradicate war at its most fundamental source, and that is the corruption of young minds by violent ideology."

He continued with a sophisticated analysis and plan of action for confronting and ending intolerance.  He spoke of the heartless folly of sectarian violence, and the international and political responsibilities to encourage and build inclusive institutions.  "Cynics may argue that such an outcome can never come to pass. But there is no other way for this madness to end -- whether one year from now or ten."

He spoke directly to the young in the Middle East, beginning with a sincere and accurate appeal to the best of their history: "You come from a great tradition that stands for education, not ignorance; innovation, not destruction; the dignity of life, not murder. Those who call you away from this path are betraying this tradition, not defending it."

He gave examples of successful collaborations in creating inclusive institutions in the Middle East.  He was blunt is saying that the present situation with Israel and Palestine is not sustainable.

 He admitted (much to the chagrin of Fox News) that America itself is not perfect.
"But we welcome the scrutiny of the world -- because what you see in America is a country that has steadily worked to address our problems, to make our union more perfect, to bridge the divides that existed at the founding of this nation. America is not the same as it was 100 years ago, or 50 years ago, or even a decade ago. Because we fight for our ideals, and we are willing to criticize ourselves when we fall short."

He closed again with his sights on the future, and on the changing attitudes of young people.  "Around the world, young people are moving forward hungry for a better world. Around the world, in small places, they're overcoming hatred and bigotry and sectarianism. And they're learning to respect each other, despite differences."

"The people of the world now look to us, here, to be as decent, and as dignified, and as courageous as they are trying to be in their daily lives. And at this crossroads, I can promise you that the United States of America will not be distracted or deterred from what must be done. We are heirs to a proud legacy of freedom, and we’re prepared to do what is necessary to secure that legacy for generations to come. I ask that you join us in this common mission, for today’s children and tomorrow’s."

Friday, September 26, 2014

In the Clinch

This is an especially exciting last weekend of the regular Major League baseball season.  I follow two teams: my adopted San Francisco Giants and my legacy Pittsburgh Pirates.  As things stand at the moment, they could very well wind up playing each other in the Wild Card game on Wednesday.  In any case, they are both playing at least one game beyond the regular season.

Which brings me to the language question: the use of the word "clinch."  The proper use of it is to denote that a team has mathematically guaranteed a certain position while there are still games left to play in the season.  So the LA Dodgers have "clinched" the NL West division championship, even though they are playing 3 more games.  Basically to "clinch" means that they could lose all those games, and still win the division.

These days however, it's becoming common for writers to use "clinch" when they mean "win."  This happens even on ESPN, which is usually pretty careful with language (they actually refer to "fewer points" rather than "less points.")  But a team that wins 3 games of a 5 game postseason series, or 4 of a 7 game series, doesn't "clinch."  They win--and as soon as a team wins 3 games in a 5 game series, that series is over, they don't play any more games.  So it makes no sense to say they "clinch."  I've seen "clinch" used to refer to even one game.

Why does this matter?  The current National League situation tells you.  Both the Pittsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals have "clinched" a playoff spot.  They could lose their last three games and still play in the postseason.  But that's the minimum of what they've accomplished.  One of those two teams is going to be the NL Central division winner (right now St. Louis is ahead by 1 game.)  But nobody has yet "clinched" that position.

In this case the language describes something that's pretty important to these teams.  The difference between winning the division and winning a Wild Card position is the difference between playing a three- of- five game series to advance, or playing one game to advance.  For the Wild Card teams the fate of an entire season rests on the outcome of a single game, and in the majors, in a single game anything can happen.

The Giants have clinched a Wild Card spot.  But they have no idea who they will be playing, or even where they will play.  Those are to be determined by the outcomes of games this weekend--their three with San Diego at home, the Pirates three at Cincinnati, and the Cardinals three at Arizona.  It's a classic case of clinching without yet winning.

So keep the damn word and use it correctly, sportswriters.  (And for my fellow fanatics, I'm keeping up with the action over at American Dash.)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

For The Planet

It was indeed the largest climate march in history.  More than 300,000 people marched in Manhattan, joined by thousands more in London, Melbourne and other cities.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Peoples March: This Thin Blue Line

This could be the start of something big.  The Peoples' Climate March will greet the UN as it focuses on climate issues, this Sunday in New York City.  Organizers are preparing for what seems very likely to be the largest demonstration on the climate crisis ever in the US.

The organizers obviously have studied the 1963 March on Washington.  They've created a coalition of political, religious and labor groups, plus environmental justice and community organizations that will participate--some 1100 organizations in all.

Almost 400 buses and trains are set to transport marchers.  Throw in some flights and there are marchers from all 50 states, including more than 300 college campuses.  And there will be music--at least 20 marching bands. A feature in the New York Times emphasizes the preparations for spectacle associated with the event:

The run-up to what organizers say will be the largest protest about climate change in the history of the United States has transformed New York City into a beehive of planning and creativity, drawing graying local activists and young artists from as far away as Germany.

The march is the centerpiece of a weekend of related activities in 130 countries as well as New York City.  The primary organizer is the 350 Project.  There's a video warmup called "Disruption."

The March on Washington changed the debate.  Maybe this march in New York will do the same. This time it's not about the color line.  It's about the thin blue line around the planet that makes life possible.  The stakes could not be higher.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

American Indeceny

President Kennedy, whose raising of the US minimum
wage in 1961 led to the Super Great Depression of the
1960s and the economic ruin of America.
The US Census Bureau's annual report on income and poverty released this week was covered in the media under a weird diversity of headlines.  Everyone seemed to focus on something different as its most important finding, or at least, its news (or ideological) hook.  In fact, the changes indicated in the report were very small.  But as John Cassidy wrote in the New Yorker, that's really its news significance.  And in a longer-term context, it explains a lot about our current political deadlock, its vociferous quality, and in particular a reason President Obama isn't getting the usual credit for an improving economy.

Though some measures of poverty declined and median income was up slightly: "There is a long way to go before ordinary Americans are able to recover the losses that they suffered during the recession. Median household income was eight per cent lower in 2013 than it was in 2007, when the recession began. And the poverty rate in 2013 was two percentage points higher than it was in 2007.

These figures may help to explain why so many Americans refuse to believe that the economy is recovering, and why President Obama’s approval ratings are stuck at near-record lows despite falling unemployment and accelerating G.D.P. growth." 

Yes, most Americans are better off than they were four years ago, or even six.  But not seven.  It's not just the pace of growth that's the problem, Cassidy writes.  It's who has benefited, and who has and has not been benefiting for a long time. "The central message of the Census Bureau figures is that the same trends that have been roiling the American economy for the past twenty-five years—income stagnation and rising inequality—continue to have an impact."

According to Cassidy:  "When spending power is rising broadly, benefitting most social, geographic, and income groups, it is much easier to get rival political parties and factions to coƶperate. Consensus politics can thrive, as they did in the postwar era. But when most people’s incomes are stagnating, and have been for decades, politics become darker and more fractious."

While those many who aren't seeing gains and may be slipping back might fight among themselves for what little there is, the few at the top "have a big incentive to get more involved politically," to stifle any policies that in the short term might take any of their disproportionate gains away.

"To oversimplify a bit, income stagnation paired with rising inequality is a recipe for political polarization and, under the American system of divided powers, political gridlock, which is what we have. Based on the latest Census Bureau figures, there’s no sign of that changing anytime soon."

We can see conspicuous effects of this in for example the virulent opposition to even the idea of climate change paid for by fossil fuel gazillionaires.  We also see it in the scandalous opposition to a modest rise in the US minimum wage.

I can recall the same doomsday cant being promulgated in 1961 about President Kennedy's proposal to raise the minimum wage to a horrifying $1.25 an hour as I hear now on the proposal today to raise it from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour.  William Finnegan (again in the New Yorker) chronicles the many times between these two proposals when the minimum wage was raised, and those who opposed it trotted out with a straight face the same dire predictions of economic disaster and worse, that were predicted for previous raises but never happened.  Usually the opposite.

Finnegan quotes the original principles behind the minimum wage as articulated by FDR in language too bold for us some 80 years later: “No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country...By living wages, I mean more than a bare subsistence level. I mean the wages of decent living.”

Finnegan checks data that shows how "depressingly modest" the $10.10 proposal actually is--yet Republicans have made it a sacred mission to defeat it.  In what should have been (and may yet turn out to be) congressional Republicans' "49% moment," Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell was recorded telling wealthy donors that when the Republicans get the Senate majority, there won't be any minimum wage nonsense in Congress anymore.  Other speakers revived the talk of something in the direction of,  but not really a living wage as a major step to fascism, communism and the rule of Satan.

Even if this federal minimum wage were to become law, it would not be big enough to put much of a dent in rampaging income inequality.  Citing figures from a recent study, Finnegan concludes: "Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would increase the income of at least sixteen million workers. It would not lift anywhere near that many people out of poverty. The proposed hike would ease present hardship, not abolish it. It would be a move in the direction of “the wages of decent living”—a performance, one might say, of decency itself."

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

“The systems that fail are those that rely on the permanency of human nature, and not on its growth and development.”
Oscar Wilde

Boots on the Ground to Battle Ebola

It's reported that on Tuesday President Obama visits the Center for Disease Control hq in Atlanta to announce that he is sending some 3,000 military personnel to West Africa.  But these boots on the ground will be battling Ebola.  They are to provide medical and logistical support to efforts to treat victims and address the quickly spreading disease.

This and other actions are responding to requests for more assistance by countries in the region.  The US has already spent over $100 million on initial efforts.  These new initiatives reportedly include training health care workers (as many as 500 a week), erecting new facilities, providing home health care kits to thousands of housheolds, other community-based programs and setting up a central hq to coordinate US and international relief.

Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN, called for an emergency meeting of the Security Council to address the crisis.  This Thursday session, she said, would be a rare case of the Security Council focusing on a public health emergency.

Earlier this month, President Obama spoke to West Africans directly on addressing this crisis.

The severity of the epidemic has been linked by some to effects of the climate crisis. West Africa suffers from prolonged drought, among other effects. Some scientists say the situation needs to be studied more closely to establish such a direct link.

Update: Here's a story about President Obama's announcement Tuesday, with video excerpts.

Monday, September 15, 2014

More Fire, Less Water

Late September and the fires continue.  Among those burning in Oregon and California, a new one in Siskiyou County that led to emergency evacuations of some 2,000 people.

Meanwhile more locally, according to the Eureka Times Standard: "The Eel River has gone so dry where the river runs through Fortuna that the water is no longer coming to the surface, something never known to have happened before this close to the ocean on the main stem."

A recent report shows water use down by about 7% statewide from last summer.  Here in Humboldt, where we have gotten zero guidance on conservation, it's down by 10%.  Downstate however in areas of southern CA where they've gotten lots of public noise, it went up.

The California drought has international effects.  This article is an eye-opener: on the global reach of California almonds, on the issues of water and prices that are bound to go up.

Saturday, September 13, 2014


Commemorating 100,000 Italian soldiers who died in a single place in the Great War one hundred years ago, Pope Francis said, "War is madness."  

Though he said international use of force is justified to counter ISIL's aggression, he also suggested that World War III has already begun, but piecemeal, in a collection of massacres, crimes and destruction.

He was speaking at the largest monument in Italy, at Redipuglia.  "Humanity needs to weep," he said, "and this is the time to weep."

The identities of 60,000 of the Italian dead at Redipuglia are unknown.  But Italian officials did find the military records for the grandfather of Pope Francis, who fought in some of the 12 battles in this place, and survived.  His family later emigrated to Argentina, which is where the current pope grew up.

My grandfather Ignazio Severini emigrated to America in 1920. He had been called up by the Italian army in the Great War, what we now call World War I. He never talked about it to me.  I don't know where he was posted, and my grandmother's few stories were not about battle. But she did say he was posted to the north, which Redipuglia is.  My aunt told me that he had been gassed, and suffered effects from it for years afterwards.

So it is possible that Ignazio Severini was there.  Today, the current Italian minister of Justice, Paola Severino was present at the ceremonies.

 Wherever Ignazio Severini had been, he survived. Perhaps, my grandmother believed, because he was a tailor, and the officers kept him safe so they would look good in their uniforms. War is madness. Still, he experienced poison gas, so maybe not so safe.

 But he was not among those 100,000. He came home, married my grandmother and fathered a daughter, Flora, my mother.  The anniversary of her birth is today.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


In one of two New Yorker pieces loaded with healthy skepticism about US options in the Middle East, Philip Gourevitch concluded (referring to President Obama's speech yesterday):

"We can only wish that he succeeds—whatever that might mean. On this anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we remember the wound that Al Qaeda dealt us, but we cannot forget the far greater toll of the self-inflicted wounds that America endured in the fever that followed. Obama had hoped to be the President who would bind those self-inflicted wounds and reposition us in the world. His previous caution was not simply a character trait; it was a sober response to the reality of our past interventions, of our wars that have begat more and worse wars." 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Leadership in Today's World

In a brief and ultimately eloquent address to the nation, President Obama outlined international efforts to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the terrorist group he calls ISIL, refusing to use the name the media uses that supports their claim to be an Islamic state. (They aren't a state, he said, and they aren't Islamic.) White House detailed summary is here, and the full transcript is here.

All this follows a lot of sound and fury signifying hypocrisy and misplaced partisanship more than actual anxiety or alternate plan.  Or, their alternate plan turns out to be just what President Obama has been doing.  (Frank Rich:"They offer no strategy of their own beyond an inchoate bellicosity expressed in constructions along the lines of “we must more forcefully do whatever it is that Obama is doing.” That’s because Obama is already doing the things that can be done (and that some of his critics redundantly suggest)..."

The general idiocy behind the noise is summarized by Michael Cohen in the NY Daily News.  Meanwhile President Obama did what he said he would do: he got NATO to materially support and help develop a strategy (not only in the Middle East but the other foreign policy challenges in Ukraine and the Ebola epidemic in Africa.)

President Obama also insisted that further American support depended on Iraq forming a more inclusive government, which they promptly did, at least so far.  So he was able to announce more US air strikes to support Iraqi ground efforts to combat ISIL.

At the same time, he emphasized: "But I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground."

It is important to state that this use of air power--which means deadly, ugly, killing bombing--does not include the kind of wholesale bombing of cities and civilians that the Shock and Awe Bushites ordered.  Targeted drone and piloted aircraft strikes are horrific, and sometimes go wrong, and sometimes kill innocents. They certainly raise legal as well as moral questions. But they are measurably different than the bombing of Iraq under both Bushes, and the bombings in southeast Asia in the Vietnam era.

As President Obama pointed out, systematic efforts to degrade and destroy terrorist organizations threatening the US have been ongoing.  This is a policy that not all of his supporters agree with, but he was forthright about it: "This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years. And it is consistent with the approach I outlined earlier this year: to use force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order."

It is a pragmatic policy of countering present threats while pulling back from the larger practices that motivate new members of terrorist groups.  President Obama was equally forthright in affirming that he will follow terrorists into Syria as he followed bin Laden into Pakistan. "This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven."

But he also emphasized gaining meaningful international support, especially from the Arab world.  He will chair a session of the UN Security Council to mobilize more nations.

He ended with an eloquent summary of American leadership for the good, and affirmed his own optimism about the country now. "It is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorists. It is America that has rallied the world against Russian aggression, and in support of the Ukrainian peoples’ right to determine their own destiny. It is America -- our scientists, our doctors, our know-how -- that can help contain and cure the outbreak of Ebola. It is America that helped remove and destroy Syria’s declared chemical weapons so that they can’t pose a threat to the Syrian people or the world again. And it is America that is helping Muslim communities around the world not just in the fight against terrorism, but in the fight for opportunity, and tolerance, and a more hopeful future."

Reaction  is starting to be registered, and the first meaningful moments will be whether Republicans in Congress can do more than carp and bellow.